Columns 2007

Are citizen legislators possible?

A few years ago, my cousin’s son announced he was not as amused as he thought he might be in his job as a newspaper reporter in a small town.  Many in the family were thrilled with this decision because, quite honestly, most of my family does not view writing as an actual career choice.  Their happiness at the decision lasted only until he informed his parents of his next career move.  He was going to go back to school to get his doctorate in philosophy.

I happened to be visiting the East Coast soon after he made this pronouncement.  His father, an eminently practical man who loves his family beyond all reason and wants only to know that they are safe and secure, sat next to me at the family dinner table while the topic of his son’s latest career choice was discussed.  Given my career history, no one was asking for my opinion.  But at one point, to explain his unease with his son’s latest choice, my cousin looked at me and earnestly asked, “When was the last time you picked up the paper and saw a want ad for a doctor of philosophy?”

It seems to me that as we continue to deal with stem cell research, cloning, environmental degradation and genocides, that ad may soon become much less rare.  And in view of the continually challenged ethics of so many public figures, philosophers may soon become the hot new commodity in public life.  Move over, Silicon Valley, the halls of academia are about to displace you.

Philosophers discuss a lot of ideas that the general public oft times finds confusing and boring until the moment when someone announces a way to clone Hitler for the benefit of those Nazis still hiding in South America. Then they start paying attention to the morality encompassed in many of the issues we face in today’s world and the reality of how that morality affects our daily life. It actually occurs to them that the fact that we have the right to do something, does not make it right to do.

I think most philosophers would agree that legislating morality is essentially a frustrating exercise. From pot smoking to prostitution, people who view morality legislation as ill conceived have always found a way to ignore it.  Trying to legislate the morality of our elected officials is viewed by some politicians as merely a challenge to their creativity. 

No matter how often we say we are a democracy – well, really a republic – we cannot escape the fact that we create our own royalty by continually re-electing the same people. Eventually they come to think of their position as an entitlement and that can lead to a feeling of being above the people who elected them.  It is a short journey from there to some slippery ethical slopes.

Perhaps it is time that we admit that the idea of citizen legislators isn’t realistic.  In this state, we expect our legislators to work only part time for us and make a living for their family the rest of the time in some job that allows them three months off a year plus additional time and days as needed to address constituent concerns.  One of the only places most will find a job like that is with a company that sees some advantage in having someone on the payroll based on who they know rather than any particular skills they have.  Our other choice is to have only independently wealthy people run for office. And isn’t that just royalty without the title?

Being a consultant is one answer to financial survival for legislators since you set your own hours and don’t have to clock in from 9 to 5.  But, as we have repeatedly seen, that choice can raise many ethical concerns.  You are usually hired as a consultant in a field you know and where you have contacts.  If you are a legislator, it doesn’t take a genius to know that the field you can best consult in is how to get business done with the state.

We can legislate morality and ethics till we are blue in the face and it will still not solve the conundrum of how legislators are supposed to survive when not in session. We can either accept a government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich or we can consider paying our legislators a year round living wage and forbidding them any other employment.

It’s not a great choice. It’s not a happy choice. But if we’d like to see government that is open to all, it’s one we may have to finally make.